Red Bull Music Academy presents Masters at Work
Jan. 27, 2012
Better than: Red Bull's "Paper Wings" promotional event.
Friday began for me at three o'clock p.m., huddled in the back of a crowded BeatBox. Red Bull Music Academy was hosting an interview and Q&A session with New York house music legends Masters at Work, the production alias of Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and "Little" Louie Vega.
Now, I'm biased. While I like Gonzalez's productions, I've been consistently let down by his DJing in the past. However, Louie Vega is someone whom I consider to be a bit of a DJ role model. Every time I've seen him play, I've been consistently amazed by his technical prowess. I don't think I'm alone, as many of those assembled peppered him with questions about the art and craft of DJing. Among these, two really stood out: What goes into good DJing and what's the state of DJing today?
His answer (and Gonzalez's as well) came to define not only the session but also the ensuing party at 1015 Folsom. To paraphrase a long quote that I don't have handy, "lack of creativity." Both Vega and Gonzalez made a lot of allusions to their experience growing up in New York in the '80s and '90s, when DJs used to perform near-impossible tricks live with only their hands and ears for assistance. Vega's beef seemed to be that DJs today are not taking full advantage of technical assistance, he wants to see more people doing creative programming and mixing while also injecting sound snippets and acapellas into the overall experience. In this, Vega makes a great point -- and when the rare occasion presents itself to hear his style of DJing, it's like coming into contact with a forgotten mother tongue: the symbols are the same, but the grammar is totally different.
Fast forward a couple hours and Avalon and I found ourselves smack dab in the center of the main room at 1015 Folsom. The place was packed, and so drenched in sweat that a lingering humidity seemed to slow my movement. Masters at Work had yet to go on, but the opening DJs -- a collective called thePeople -- were working the room in the classic style with an isolator routed into a an old Rane rotary. The gear, coupled with the number of bodies in the room, contributed to a sound quality that had been almost entirely absent from previous nights I've spent at 1015 Folsom. The beefed-up thud of the kick drum slammed against the floor, causing isolated circles of house dancers to break out into complex and jazzy maneuvers.
All through the room, dedicated fans in shirts bearing the iconic MAW logo worked out with huge smiles on their faces. Many from the older generation came equipped with handheld percussion: tambourines shook, agogos clanged, and maracas of all shapes and sizes speckled the air with new layers of syncopation. High over head, 1015's split disco ball shot out flashing strobes and messy swirls of colorful laser.
The duo appeared onstage around 1 a.m. to take the reins of a complex system that included six CDJs, a computer, two mixers, a Pioneer effects box, and an isolator. Not wasting any time, they blanketed the room with a beatless interlude of flanged noise. A reverential awe overtook the audience as the slow and groovy opening notes to "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun" slipped out of the speakers and into the air. Letting the track breathe, they allowed it to play for a good while before looping a short segment and accelerating into a blistering set of classics mixed in an aggressive and old-school style.
Dropping into "The Bounce," they established a base soundscape that provided a bedrock for samples and snippets to fly over. Lines from Yello's "Bostich" intermingled with long acapellas and crashing waves of piano. It seemed as though Gonzalez and Vega were constantly altering the mix to make sure their complex, three-CDJ blends stayed in phase. They teased the crowd by momentarily jumping into a popular track's intro (say, "Deep Inside"), before diving back out and into something else. It was a constant play of dynamics and expectations, yet there was never a moment when a desire went unfulfilled. They might have teased a track, but they never forgot to play it later.
It was a classics set through and through, but then again, that's what you would hope from an outfit that made its name in the heyday of house. That being said, it never felt tired or even nostalgic. Instead, there was a presence to the event that seemed to point more toward the future than the past. Part of this was due to the excellent EQ work by Vega, who seemed to lose himself in every song as he manipulated the frequencies to tailor the music for the evening. Tracks like Rolando's "Jaguar", Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body," and Royal House's "Can You Party" all took on new qualities as they were mixed on the fly by Vega and Gonzalez.
In the end it was an awe-inspiring evening, and one that seemed to directly illustrate what happens when really good DJs get their hands on new technology. Let's hope people are taking notes.